Benzion Gotlib loved to study Jewish texts, and thanks to the Jewish Learning Network – a worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch run effort to pair study partners by fiber optic cable and phone line – he was able to keep up a weekly learning appointment up until his passing at the age of 93.

“It kept him alive,” says daughter Judy Gordon of the regular phone sessions her father had with Rabbi Yisroel Rosen of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Right up until February, Gotlib would pick up the phone at his Farmington Hills, Mich., residence and study Talmud with Rosen for a half hour, described by family members as the highlight of his week. Gotlib’s lifelong thirst for Jewish knowledge had become more difficult five years ago when he and his wife relocated from their longtime home in Flint to suburban Detroit to be closer to their daughter.

Back in Flint, Gotlib helped establish Chabad House Lubavitch of Eastern Michigan, directed by Rabbi Yisroel and Shaina Chana Weingarten.

“I still remember when we came to the community, one of the first places we went was to Benzion Gotlib’s office,” says Yisroel Weingarten. “They adopted us like their own children when we moved here.”

“My dad always loved Torah, Israel and Judaism,” says Gordon. “He would establish learning and study groups in the community, and continued that way all his life until the point where he couldn’t learn with someone in person anymore. Then it became my goal to find him something.”

Gordon read about the Jewish Learning Network, also known as JNet, in a Jewish newspaper while visiting her children on the East Coast. The concept of a phone study session struck her as the perfect solution for her father. She contacted JNet director Rabbi Yehudah Dukes, who paired Gotlib with Rosen, and the two began learning the Talmudic tractate known as Berachot in 2009.

“[JNet] is the only thing that worked,” says Gordon. “Rabbi Rosen was a perfect match.”

Rabbi Yisroel Rosen
Rabbi Yisroel Rosen

In the Brooklyn section of Crown Heights, Rosen spends his days similarly immersed in Torah study, and teaches at several different institutions in the neighborhood. He devotes about 25 hours per week to both face-to-face and long-distance learning with seniors, as well.

Rosen says that he was inspired by Gotlib, who conquered his deteriorating health to keep up with his study session. Although the two never met, or even saw photos of each other, they forged a connection.

“Learning with Benzion had a profound impact on me, considering the kind of person he was and the state he was in,” says Rosen.

The family suspects it was Parkinson’s disease that made speaking so difficult for Gotlib towards the end of his life.

“He was ill but, nonetheless, gathered all his strength for studying. I knew he always understood what we were learning, even later on when he struggled to speak,” says Rosen. “It was a privilege to study with him.”

The two studied up until the week Gotlib passed away on Feb. 24. They learned as usual that Sunday afternoon; he passed away just four days later.

Rosen has yet to find another study partner to fill that time slot, but he did find a new set of study partners to carry on Gotlib’s legacy: his daughter-in-law, Esther Rosen, now learns each Sunday with Gotlib’s wife Miriam.

“My husband looked forward to learning with Rabbi Rosen very much, and I just thought learning would be something nice for me to do,” says 87-year-old Miriam Gotlib, who suggested she and Esther Rosen study Pirkei Avot, a collection of Mishnaic aphorisms known in English as the Ethics of the Fathers, just as she and her late husband had for years.

“My parents would learn Pirkei Avot together on Shabbat afternoon,” says Gordon. “I think it was the desire to continue in my dad’s honor [that spurred the new pairing]. It keeps the feeling going.”

Esther Rosen, also of Crown Heights, has studied with other women through JNet in the past. When her father-in-law approached her with this suggestion, she readily agreed.

“I know my father-in-law really enjoyed learning with Mr. Gotlib,” she explains. “So now Miriam and I have been learning on Sunday afternoons for about the past two months. We read Pirkei Avot with translation and some Chasidic commentary, which has a very positive and uplifting note.”